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Published: Monday, 5/26/2008

Veterans' project offers history, family lessons; Fremont Ross students find new link with elders

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FREMONT - Like a number of his classmates at Fremont Ross High School, Tyler Cheek never knew his two grandfathers.

Both World War II veterans, one died before he was born, and the other died in 1991 when Tyler was just 1 year old.

It was an assignment in Tyler's global studies class - an honors course for sophomores - that prompted him to do some digging and learn more not only about his grandfathers but about their small but significant roles in American history.

His maternal grandfather, Norman Ponivas, who served in the Philippines and Australia, had the auspicious assignment as driver for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"I knew he was a veteran, but I didn't know where he served or that he drove General McArthur's car," Tyler said, as he showed photographs Mr. Ponivas had taken of the legendary general.

His other grandfather, Charles Cheek, Sr., served in Iwo Jima and the Philippines, and was in Okinawa when a plane carrying the atomic bomb landed to refuel. Mr. Cheek also was a witness to the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

For Tyler, it was a homework assignment that taught him a lot more than he expected.

"At first I didn't know if it'd be interesting, but once I started gathering information, it really was," he said.

That's exactly what his teacher Mike Gilbert has been hoping his students would discover. Since 2001, he has had his global studies classes identify two veterans to research, and he prefers they are relatives.

"I've let some of the kids do repeats because I think the most important thing is they learn a little about their family and about history," Mr. Gilbert said.

Samantha Burdette interviewed both her grandfather, who served in Korea, and a young man who is leaving for Iraq this week. She was impressed with the patriotism she heard from both of them.

"My grandpa said if he could go over to Iraq, he would," Samantha said of 77-year-old Robert Miller. "He thinks everyone should have to serve or do their duty."

She admitted she would be scared to go into a war zone, but added, "I have a lot of respect for the men and women who do."

John Paxson said he didn't know if he could identify two family members who served in the armed forces, but with the help of relatives, he was able to write about his late grandfather, who spent one year in the Army prior to the start of the Korean War, and, to his amazement, his great-great-great grandfather who was a Civil War veteran.

Samantha Burdette interviewed her grandfather, who was a soldier in Korea, and a young man who is leaving soon for Iraq and was impressed by the patriotism of both.
Samantha Burdette interviewed her grandfather, who was a soldier in Korea, and a young man who is leaving soon for Iraq and was impressed by the patriotism of both.
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Semila "Smiley" Spencer fought for the Union Army from 1863 to 1865 primarily in eastern Tennessee. John said he was able to find records of his ancestor's service both in the research library at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont and at the American Civil War Museum of Ohio in Bowling Green.

"I'm kind of excited because I'll be able to bring more information to them," John said.

Katherine Pfeiffer said her grandmother didn't think she could help her with her project because Katherine's grandfather, William Pfeiffer, rarely talked about his tour of duty in World War II. She did lead her to a box of things from his days in the Army, and it turned out to be a treasure trove.

Her grandfather had kept everything from his Army song book to his soldier's handbook. He had silk maps, an emergency signaling mirror - all kinds of memorabilia that helped tell his story.

"I learned so much," Katherine said. "I never really knew my grandpa because he died when I was 3. My Dad said he never talked to him [about the war] so it was fun to see what I could learn."

An avowed history buff, Mr. Gilbert said he learns something new through each of his students' projects. He said 120 veterans' stories were compiled this year, and he figures more than 500 have been done since he started the veterans project.

"It's a history class," Mr. Gilbert said. "I want them to get an appreciation of what veterans have done for us, and also what I think is really amazing is what they find out about grandparents and great-grandparents."

The stories compiled by the students are being archived at the Hayes Presidential Center and many can be viewed through the Hayes Web site at www.rbhayes.org/hayes.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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